As the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is celebrating its 50 anniversary, it is coming under renewed threat. Newly-elected Alaskan governor Sean Parnell is a staunch supporter of the oil and gas industry, which could spell bad news for conservationists. On December 3, he wrote a letter to President Obama telling him to not turn ANWR into a national monument. In his letter, he writes,

“The State of Alaska strongly opposes any measures that would further encumber job potential and domestic energy production on the coastal plain of ANWR, the most promising unexplored petroleum region in North America.”

There might be some resistance from within the state government, though it is unclear. The new lieutenant governor is Mead Treadwell, who was appointed chair of the U.S. Arctic Commission by former president George W. Bush. He was a big proponent of research in the Arctic, and testified before the Senate that he believes in climate change and that UNCLOS should be ratified. Statements like “Scientific research is necessary to understand climate change, and to guide the global response in both “mitigation” and “adaptation,” and, “The policy of the United States also speaks directly to the need for international cooperation to accomplish many, if not all, of our goals in the newly accessible Arctic,” would not sit well with staunch conservatives. In fact, though Treadwell is a Republican, it appears that several on the right are not that fond of him (for example, this blog and this website). Perhaps, then, Treadwell will have a different opinion than Parnell on ANWR.

Meanwhile, a few thousand miles southeast, the Canadian government is planning to designate a new national marine conservation area on Baffin Island, near where the fabled Northern Passage cuts through Lancaster Sound. A committee including indigenous representatives from the  Qikiqtani Inuit Association, along with government officials from Nunavut and the federal government, will decide where to draw the lines of the conservation area. Once created, no oil drilling or seismic testing will be permitted.

However, commercial ships would still be able to pass through the so-called “Serengeti of the Arctic.” This is important to note, since by making the waters of Lancaster Sound into a national park, Canada would be reinforcing its claim that these are internal waters. This past summer, plans to carry out seismic testing in the sound on behalf of Natural Resources Canada angered the indigenous population for two reasons: one, it could have seriously injured the hearing and communications systems of whales in the area, and two, such testing could be a harbinger of oil and gas drilling. The Nunavut Court of Justice granted the Qikiqtani an injunction against seismic testing one day before it was to commence, and the indigenous peoples are now hoping this ban will become permanent.

But just as Lancaster Sound will most likely win federal protection, Ottawa has discretely removed a ban on subsurface mining in the Horn Plateau (known as the Edéhzhíe, in the local indigenous Dene language), west of the Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. The plateau, an integral part of Dene legend, stretches for 25,000 square kilometers over an area believed to be rich in “diamonds, base metals, uranium and energy,” according to the Toronto Star. It was supposed to become a National Wildlife Area rather than a landscape ravaged by mines.

Since 1999, the Dehcho have been fighting to legally protect the Horn Plateau by turning it into a protected area as part of the NWT Protected Areas Strategy, which to date has helped conserve 31 million acres in the territory. Through the strategy, aboriginal communities can propose to protect areas that are important to them ecologically and culturally. Environmental groups and industry are also consulted in the process. While discussions were ongoing regarding the status of the Horn Plateau, in 2002, a temporary agreement between the Dehcho First Nations (DFN) and the federal government was reached to block any minerals claims. Right before the agreement expired this past October, the Indian and Northern Affairs Department extended the protection until 2012, but only on the surface, against activities such as logging. Sub-surface activities such as mining were given a pass.

In response to Ottawa’s sudden and unexpected move, the DFN is suing the government in Federal Court. Chris Reid, legal adviser to the DFN, observed, “This is unprecedented and if it’s not reversed, it will lead to the end of the protected-areas strategy.”

Grand Chief Sam Gargan remarked, “We cannot stand by and allow sacred ancestral lands and the watershed to be destroyed. We will protect our land.”

News Links

“Ottawa facing lawsuit for opening Arctic area to mining claims,” City TV

“The embattled Arctic refuge,” Homer Tribune

“Ottawa quietly opens protected Arctic wilderness to proposed mining,” Toronto Star

“N.W.T. Arctic nation wants Arctic mining ban back,” CBC News

“Ottawa moves to protect Serengeti of the Arctic,” The Globe and Mail

Dehcho First Nations sue Canada to protect Edehzhie,” NationTalk

Categories: Environment

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